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Trudging around Tokyo Disneyland, Lauren Wells glared at her friend Sabrina, dressed in a Princess Tiana costume, flitting a few paces ahead. It was May. The park’s flower gardens were blooming. And Sabrina’s life—or at least the life she pretended to have—was crumbling. Lauren knew it. She suspected Sabrina did too.

But for now, that day, Lauren kept quiet, letting the charade play out a little longer: Sabrina like any of the other Disney adults enjoying the rides and attractions, the cinnamon sugar of overpriced churros dusting the front of the green-and-cream dress and matching cardigan she claimed to have made herself. Obviously an Amazon purchase, Lauren thought bitterly.

In a couple of days, the two women would be back home in Seattle, and Lauren was deciding what to do next. She just had to make it through this one final vacation, the last of many with a best friend she never really knew.

Lauren and Sabrina were in a niche squad of sorts: four American women in Japan who shared a love for some aspect of Japanese pop culture, whether anime or visual kei. “We’re all nerds,” Lauren says.

Three of them actually lived there—Lauren worked as a translator for Nintendo, based for a time in Kyoto. Then there was Kathryn Robarts, an English teacher and belly-dancing instructor who’d been in Matsudo for more than a decade. Ebony Norwood-Brown was a longtime Tokyo resident, working as a daycare provider while co-parenting a young son with her ex. Sabrina was the globe-trotting tourist of the bunch, a science researcher who lived in Seattle, with a love of Japan so big that it stretched across the sea.


Sabrina’s connections with each of the others began when she friended them on Facebook, followed by messaging them one-on-one to ask if she could stay at their place while visiting. She’d book a plane ticket, touch down in Tokyo, and lavish her host—Lauren or Kathryn or Ebony—with meals, gifts, and whimsical adventures. She had plenty of money and was always happy to treat. She never asked for much in return, apart from a comfy place to crash. Every few months, she’d be back in Japan for more fun.

Lauren, Kathryn, and Ebony were acquainted with one another too. They had friends in common. They were linked on social media and had crossed paths here and there over the years. Sabrina was part of that wider network. But from the beginning, they each clocked little things that seemed off about their bubbly guest: minor inconsistencies, a fervor that could sometimes bulldoze other people’s needs. Kathryn recalls Sabrina’s strange insistence that Kathryn join her in wearing character costumes at Disneyland, like a yellow Winnie the Pooh–themed dress festooned with garish ruffles. Kathryn said she didn’t want to wear the outfit, but Sabrina kept trying to convince her anyway. Sabrina’s arm-twisting made Kathryn feel like a passive plaything, a weird doll.

Sabrina was equally tireless in her flattery, showering Kathryn with nonstop compliments about her talent, her “beautiful dancer’s body.” It set Kathryn on edge in a way she couldn’t quite explain, like a preamble to some ulterior truth. Maybe it was nothing though. Maybe Sabrina was like this with everyone, just a starburst of playful energy hitting every craft fair and anime pop-up café and live-action Sailor Moon play in her path. Her catchphrase was a high-pitched, “Oh my god, oh my god!”—her response to all things adorable. She was mostly fun and never boring. A person of intense enthusiasm.

“Making it up as I go along,” Sabrina’s Facebook bio reads. “Your neighborhood Black poly fat queer femme witch, reporting for duty.”

One of the reasons the foursome held together is that the women connected over social issues and identity, in likeminded posts and comment threads about progressive politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, the LGBTQ+ community. Each person brought different lived experiences to the conversation. Lauren is white, asexual, and biromantic. Ebony is biracial and pansexual. Kathryn—straight, cis, and white—is an ally.


Sabrina also posted frequently about living with multiple sclerosis, a condition that caused debilitating pain. Lauren was moved by this disclosure, the unfairness of it all. “You’re sitting there thinking Sabrina’s so nice, she’s incredibly generous, everybody loves her. She’s just so cool,” she says. “And she has this horrible disease.”

Although Lauren knew that chronic illness isn’t always visible or consistent, on several visits, she observed that Sabrina seemed to have plenty of energy for the action-packed agendas she designed—zooming up to the observation deck at the 2,080-foot Skytree tower or wandering through Asakusa, a popular shopping destination. Sabrina’s symptoms seemed to flare only when Lauren suggested an activity, like visiting Mount Kōya, a sacred Buddhist site. “She’d say, ‘Well, y’know, my MS,’” Lauren recalls. “‘I can’t walk very far, so I can’t go with you.’”

For Ebony, the first noticeable cracks in Sabrina’s story revolved around Sabrina’s language ability. Ebony remembers a holiday visit when the two were strolling around Tokyo’s Roppongi district on a chilly evening, taking in the twinkling glow of Christmas lights. Sabrina suggested they duck into a shopping complex for tea. “When we went to order, she had no idea how to express the temperature she wanted, which is a very basic statement,” Ebony says. Hadn’t Sabrina posted on Facebook that she’d worked as a Japanese-to-English translator for manga projects? But Ebony didn’t press it. She placed the tea order on Sabrina’s behalf: warm, not iced.


During most visits, Sabrina was flush with cash. Epic shopping sprees were a pillar of her trips: All over Tokyo, she scooped up Pokémon merch, makeup, sneakers, anime figurines, stuffed animals, manga, a Princess Tiana purse. She blew upward of $500 a day on trinkets and indulgences that piled up in the homes of her hosts. Which was odd, because Sabrina wasn’t exactly making bank in her job. While earning her master’s degree at the University of Washington, she said, she had been working as a research assistant specializing in epigenetics at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. So Lauren assumed Sabrina had a rich family. “It was never choosing between this or that,” Lauren says. “It was just absolutely everything she wanted, every single time we went out.”

And yet, mini crises would render Sabrina suddenly broke, Lauren says: “She’d be like, ‘Lauren, something has happened that is completely out of my control—can you CashApp me $300?’” The sums Sabrina borrowed from Lauren were modest, and she always paid them back. Her cash flow—like her very essence—just seemed kind of chaotic.

Plus, she was generous. Very generous, which made Lauren feel alternately grateful and trapped. When Sabrina wanted to attend the Fuji Rock Festival, Sabrina fronted the money for the pair’s major expenses: concert passes, hotel accommodations, round-trip tickets on the bullet train. But on some level, Lauren felt more like a nanny than a friend. Her role was to translate, make the arrangements. She felt guilty at the idea of leaving Sabrina unattended for too long. “She was basically a baby in Japan,” Lauren says. At the festival, Sabrina melted down when Lauren wanted to duck out early to make it to work the following day. Despite Sabrina holding down an important job of her own, she seemed to have endless vacation days and zero grasp of professional responsibilities.

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In her time with Sabrina, Ebony, too, picked up on a peculiar lack of adult empathy. Sabrina had always seemed so eager to connect with Ebony on issues of identity, at least in the broader sense. But the challenges and injustices Ebony faced in her day-to-day life, like racist microaggressions and homophobia, simply didn’t seem real in Sabrina’s eyes. Ebony remembers trying to share her experiences of being sexually harassed in public. Sabrina was incredulous: “Those kinds of things don’t happen in Japan.”

Of course, most vacations have a fantasy bent. But here, Sabrina was resistant to reality altogether. “You could never say anything bad,” Ebony says. “She couldn’t accept that Japan wasn’t her kawaii Narnia fantasyland.”

Sabrina spearheaded the trip that brought the whole group together for the first—and last—time, in May 2018. By then, Lauren had transferred back to Seattle with her job. The plan was for her and Sabrina to fly to Tokyo with tickets Sabrina said she had scored by redeeming her father’s airline miles, travel to South Korea for a brief visit, then return to Japan. They’d be using Ebony’s house as their base while they bounced around Japan for 10 days of colorful escapades, with Kathryn joining in as her work schedule allowed.

Following their late-night arrival in Tokyo, Sabrina and Lauren loaded their luggage into a cab and zipped over to Ebony’s place. They were settling in and unpacking when Sabrina realized her phone was missing—along with her debit card, stashed in the pocket of the phone’s protective case. Ugh, must be in the back seat of the taxi, the group guessed. No one had noted the name of the cab company, and the phone’s battery was dead after the long day of travel. On her iPad, catching up on messages with a new crush, Sabrina delegated the search to Ebony and Lauren. They called around to several cab companies asking if anything had been found. No luck.


Ebony was at her son’s school the following morning when a distressed message came through: It was Sabrina. Someone must have stolen the bank card. Her checking account had been emptied overnight. Ebony rushed home to find Sabrina poring over her iPad, the screen showing her depleted balance. They checked the transaction log and saw that a company with an unfamiliar name had withdrawn the entire amount, more than $22,000. Sabrina phoned the bank, and a rep informed her it was a legitimate withdrawal by a debt collection law firm. Distraught and overwhelmed, she hung up. Then she asked Ebony to call the bank back on her behalf. A second rep explained to Ebony that deductions of this nature often concern unpaid loans and that the bank is required to comply with a legal order. Sabrina insisted this couldn’t possibly apply to her case, and Ebony wanted to believe her. Maybe it’s just a clerical error, she thought. Sabrina Taylor is a really common name.

Sabrina, though, seemed less interested in figuring out the financial snafu than in crafting a tragic narrative to share on social media. She opened Facebook and posted that a bank error in Tokyo had left her destitute and suicidal. She mentioned other money challenges too. “I have a lot of life insurance that would cover my debts and it’s all I can focus on,” she wrote. “The only solution I see is killing myself so at least I won’t suffer and people can be paid.” She had just tried to die, she wrote, by jumping in front of a train.

Ebony knew she had no way of discerning Sabrina’s true mental health status in that moment. Still, to Ebony, Sabrina did not appear hysterically upset. She had been nowhere near a train that morning. She had made up almost the entire story, with a sense of relative outward calm, while sprawled on Ebony’s living room floor.

For Ebony, the disconnect was triggering. “I grew up in very volatile situations, around hustlers and scammers my entire life,” she says. “The bells started ringing.”

Kathryn had been en route to Ebony’s house with emergency cash for Sabrina. Ebony texted her a heads-up: “I’ll meet you at the train station. Something weird is going on.” As Ebony headed for the door, Sabrina briefly looked up from the iPad and asked her to bring back a doughnut and a frappé.


Lauren, out on her own for the morning, learned of Sabrina’s post when her phone started buzzing with Facebook Messenger alerts from mutual friends back in Seattle who knew the two were traveling together. Sabrina hadn’t responded to their messages since expressing her suicidal thoughts. Everyone was worried for her safety.

Scrolling through the messages, Lauren noticed another theme stirred in with the worry: money Sabrina had borrowed from them and never paid back. Several people seemed to be focused on the irony of the bank blunder: I can’t believe this is happening. I just lent her thousands of dollars.

Lauren wrote back and probed a little further. The stories had an eerie sameness: At various points, Sabrina had apparently told people in her life she needed funds to cover urgent expenses like MS treatments, grad school tuition, and rent. She’d pay them back when her work bonus came through or when she received a windfall from her parents or when she got a large settlement from a lawsuit she claimed to have won against Chase Bank. All she needed was some short-term cash to bridge the gap. Her friends—many also of marginalized identities—had rushed to her aid. When the world screws us over, we show up for each other.

Lauren was blown away by the size of Sabrina’s account balance before it was drained—the kind of sum Lauren had never seen in her life. “Sabrina had $22,000,” she says. “Why are all these people giving her money?”

As the three friends in Tokyo struggled to piece together an explanation, one of Sabrina’s friends in Seattle—unaware of the others’ experiences—launched a Facebook fundraiser on her behalf. Ebony recalls Sabrina watching the dollar amount climb and doubling down on her victimhood. “This always happens to Black women,” Ebony remembers Sabrina saying of the bank mess. “The system takes advantage of us.”

Ebony’s reply was unsparing. “Sometimes it is the system,” she told Sabrina. “And sometimes we make horrible mistakes.”

Even with everything going on, Sabrina still wanted to take the trip to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka that she’d planned with Lauren, to be followed by a Tokyo Disneyland jaunt on which Kathryn would tag along (Ebony wouldn’t be joining them). Was this really an okay thing to do—or even a safe thing to do? Kathryn made an excuse and bowed out, but Lauren decided to move ahead with the itinerary. After all, she didn’t want Sabrina to know she was onto her. And maybe all of them would have a chance to get to the bottom of this if Sabrina were happily occupied in her favorite places on earth.

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That’s how Lauren ended up at Disneyland, barely maintaining her composure as Sabrina scampered through the grounds dressed as a shape-shifting princess.

Lauren had feigned being sick for Universal Studios. She’d needed to be alone, to let off steam after corresponding with all the people who had shared their complaints about Sabrina. At the Airbnb, she tried to untangle her thoughts. Then she had an idea: Sabrina had once shared her phone passcode with Lauren. Maybe Sabrina used the same login for her iPad, which was just sitting there by the bed.

Bingo. What Lauren discovered in the device was a troubling void: In Sabrina’s email, not a single message related to her research work or to the University of Washington. In Sabrina’s Slack, a work account wasn’t even set up.

Lauren tapped on the email outbox tab. She saw a message Sabrina had sent to an administrator at Seattle Central College, a community college specializing in career training. Sabrina was on academic probation and asking to restart classes.


Then Lauren spotted some exchanges with a mutual friend of theirs, JN*. In one message, Sabrina told JN that President Trump’s policies had created temporary gaps in her health insurance. “Medications, IV treatments (not the one you paid for, another one called Inferion [sic]), and MRI are not covered,” Sabrina wrote, adding that a drug JN previously paid for was no longer effective at managing her symptoms. “I know you don’t have any of your dad’s money left so I don’t know what to do.” From the exchanges Lauren read, it seemed JN had loaned Sabrina at least $40,000.

Like many of Sabrina’s other stories, this medical saga didn’t sound true. And Lauren was now furious that JN may have been swindled. Does Sabrina even have MS? Lauren grabbed Sabrina’s travel bag containing her medications and rifled through the contents. None were the expensive drugs Sabrina had said she needed to manage her disease.

Despite her rage and confusion, Lauren made it back to Tokyo with Sabrina—the pair’s final stopover, at an Airbnb, before they’d head back to Seattle. And that’s when Ebony, at her home, found Sabrina’s phone and bank card. In the jumble of luggage and other personal effects, the items had toppled into a toy bin, buried in a shopping bag with onigiri and other snacks.

At that point, Ebony had to laugh. “If Sabrina’s phone had not been dead, if she had been in America at that time, if she had been at anybody else’s house except for my super-suspicious ass, she’d probably still be out there scamming the shit out of people,” she says. Ebony, Kathryn, and Lauren exchanged a flurry of messages. They agreed that Lauren would retrieve the phone and return it to Sabrina (Ebony wanted nothing to do with Sabrina anymore) and then report the group’s findings to authorities back in the States. They may, they thought, have uncovered something huge.


As Lauren and Sabrina were flying home over the Pacific—Lauren in Economy and Sabrina in Comfort Plus—Ebony opened Facebook and began typing. “I’m writing this because I believe in truth, integrity, and also because I cannot allow any more people to give money to a person who is lying,” she wrote. Ebony laid out the entire story and shared the receipts: a screenshot of Sabrina’s Wells Fargo account, a default judgment for nonpayment of rent. “I implore you to not give her any more money,” Ebony begged. “I and others are attempting to notify any and all authorities so that she cannot continue these travesties against queer people, women, and people of color, the communities she claims to support but who she has primarily targeted.” She took a deep breath, then hit Post.

Sabrina, on plane Wi-Fi, must have seen it right away, because she raced back to Economy crying that her life was ruined, Lauren remembers. Lauren moved with her to an area by the bathroom, where Sabrina continued to make a scene until a flight attendant directed both women to take their seats. Another flight attendant arrived at Lauren’s row a short while later to ask if she was with the woman sobbing in Comfort Plus. Lauren slumped under the stares of the other passengers, her anxiety spiking. At the airport, she grudgingly helped Sabrina into an Uber. And with that, the friendship was done.

Lauren met up with JN the next day. She also called an FBI hotline, where a service agent encouraged her to file a report through the agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. An investigation followed, ultimately revealing that Sabrina had falsified much of her life story. While she had briefly enrolled in classes at the University of Washington in 2014, she never earned any credits. The lawsuit against Chase Bank? Fiction. Between mid-2015 and early 2018, she had no record of employment in Washington state. Sabrina’s physician and a review of Sabrina’s medical records confirmed that she had never been diagnosed with MS and that Sabrina had forged a letter from her doctor to convince people she was sick.

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It would take more than three years for authorities to finish investigating and charge Sabrina Taylor, 41, with wire fraud. The complaint detailed Sabrina’s long-running scheme of making false financial statements to people who knew and trusted her, all with a false promise to repay. Cosmopolitan reached out to Sabrina for comment multiple times—through her public defender, on Facebook, and by email—and did not receive a response. But Sabrina did make at least one attempt to explain. “I lied because I have a shopping addiction, which I developed as a coping mechanism over years of physical and emotional abuse,” she wrote in an email to JN, according to the complaint.

No one but Sabrina will ever know the whole story. But in July, she pleaded guilty to swindling more than $600,000 from friends and romantic partners, 10 victims in total. A Department of Justice statement about the case noted that Sabrina used a substantial portion of the funds for luxuries, including almost $60,000 for trips to Japan and Korea. She now faces up to 20 years in prison, with her sentencing set for October 7 (prosecutors are recommending no more than 27 months behind bars). She also has to pay restitution to her victims.

For the three friends who knew Sabrina as a free-spirited tourist, the experience has been surreal. Sabrina didn’t drain their life savings; the women were simply fixtures on the escapist end of the rabbit hole. Lauren feels lucky that she wasn’t targeted in the financial con, but Sabrina’s chimerical friendship shattered her trust in others.

The friends know, too, that prison time comes with no guarantee that Sabrina will grow from the experience or reckon with the havoc she wreaked. Or that Sabrina will ever truly wake up from the permanent-vacation dream she created for herself. “For Sabrina,” Ebony says, “it was all about living in a fake, cute world.”

*Initials used to protect anonymity.

Headshot of Sarah Treleaven
Sarah Treleaven

Sarah Treleaven is a writer and producer, and the host of USG Audio’s Madness of Two podcast. She lives in Nova Scotia, Canada.